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Mary Sadler, née Nelson

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Mary Sadler (née Nelson) was the first woman to be hired to work in the radio room at No. 2 Air Observer School (AOS), Edmonton. In the following excerpt, she describes her challenging first day at AOS in Edmonton and her poetic ability. There are not many first hand accounts of civilian women working for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and we are pleased to present this brief snapshot of her experiences at No. 2 AOS, where Mary Sadler writes was "a special place during such an important time in our country's history"

Map of #2 Air Observer SchoolOne day in late December 1941, I was driven by a friend to the Edmonton airport
to pick up an employment application, in hopes of getting a job at the Air Observer
School (AOS). It was run by the famous World War I flying ace, heroic bush pilot and
entrepreneur, Wilfred "Wop" Reid May. All the boys were gradually going off to war, so
they were going to have to start hiring women sooner or later! We came first to the
green-shingled structures of No. 16 Elementary Flying Training School, with its fleet of
yellow Tiger Moths. Huddled next to it were the brown, imitation-brick buildings of No. 2 Air Observers School, where they flew yellow Ansons....

Bright and early the next morning, I returned with my application to the guardhouse, where I had to explain my mission and sign myself in. The guard directed me to Mr. May's office. The great man...asked me a few questions and made some notes. He was very nice, but quiet and serious, and knowing how famous he was, I was very much in awe of him. Later, I learned that he had one artificial eye, and I understood then why he looked so cool and unapproachable. He was very courteous, but gave no hint as to when he might call me in to work.

When I hadn't heard any news after several days, I gave up. I was staying at the YWCA, which only cost 25 cents a night for a dormitory with five other girls, but my wallet was getting flatter. I went to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) recruiting centre, where a friend suggested I apply for general duties,Radio room at #2 Air Observer School which could mean peeling potatoes, sweeping floors, and so on. I had to write an "M.A." test, which stood for "mental alert," and it was designed to determine a person's capabilities. I was later told that the only other person who had ever scored as high at that station was a boy who was a university graduate. The male officers were astounded and wouldn't hear of signing me up for general duties! Luckily, I finally heard that I had been accepted at AOS.

On January 19, 1942, I returned to the airport with wings on my feet and butterflies in my stomach. Mr. May was waiting for me, and got right down to the business of signing me in. There was the secrecy oath—military secrets must not be divulged to unauthorized persons. He gave me a large button with a number, which I was to pin it on my coat. This would allow me to come through the guardhouse without question. There was another button, a small, blue one with "British Commonwealth Air Training Plan" around the edge, and I could wear this on my jacket, sweater or dress. My wages would be $75 per month to start. Phew! I was rich! Then he phoned the radio room and asked the chief operator to come over and collect me. While we waited, he gave me the locations of all the ladies washrooms on the base. There were only three at that point, one in the canteen, one in the stores building and another in the office building across the road. Then, he explained that I would be working in "A" Hangar, where no girls had worked before, and the men there were not used to having to watch their language. Consequently, the air could get a little thick around there. Would that bother me? I assured him that I would survive.

...A big fellow in a navy-blue uniform and a peaked cap came in, and Mr. May introduced him as Jack Goodridge, the chief operator. He would be my boss in the radio room. Jack ushered me outside, back to the main road, past the canteen and the office building, where the meteorology department was housed ....The "A" Hangar doors were open, taking advantage of the morning sun, and one or two aircraft sat inside with a few men working around them. A pungent odour, which I identified as banana oil, was wafting about. It was "wing dope," of course, but I didn't know about such things yet. 

 

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